Less than a year ago, the national soccer media had a simple narrative to describe San Jose Earthquakes star forward Chris Wondolowski: Goal scoring machine in MLS but not good enough to do the same at the international level.
Then came the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup, and all that changed.
Wondolowski had started his U.S. men's national team career with nine caps but zero goals. He famously missed inside the six-yard box against Panama in the 2011 Gold Cup, a game the U.S. lost 2-1 marking its only group stage loss in tournament history, and looked destined to have it define him for the rest of his playing days. But two years on from that fateful game, Wondolowski finally broke through, and in a big way.
After scoring a goal in a pre-tournament friendly against Guatemala, Wondolowski -- or should we say Wondowlowski as his misspelled jersey indicated -- netted a first half hat-trick in the USMNT's Gold Cup opener against Belize. Add two more goals in the next game against Haiti, and Wondo secured a share of the tournament's Golden Boot as the U.S. triumphed over Panama to capture the Gold Cup title.
And to make the feat even more impressive, Wondolowski was playing on a broken foot, suffered the week before the Gold Cup while training with the Earthquakes. The injury was not publicly revealed until after the MLS season, but in hindsight pushes his USMNT heroics to new levels of impressiveness.
With an offseason of rest, Wondolowski entered head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's January training camp healthy and refreshed. During the national team's two-week stint in Brazil last month, Wondo scored in a closed-door scrimmage against legendary club Sao Paulo. But that only served as a warm-up for what he would accomplish in his next start.
In an international friendly against South Korea to close out January's USMNT training camp, Wondolowski scored two goals in the 2-0 victory in front of a capacity crowd at the StubHub Center in Carson, CA. The brace boosted the striker's international scoring record to eight goals in 18 national team appearances, all in the last nine games. Before taking the field against the Koreans, Wondo was about to play what one writer described as the most important game of his international career. And when he scored twice, talk of Wondolowski making Klinsmann's 23-man roster for the World Cup has heated up again.
"Seeing Wondo start the year 2014 with two goals was awesome," Klinsmann said in his post-game comments. "It's awesome for him."
Whether Wondolowski has booked his ticket to Brazil is a ways away from being decided. The numbers game is not in his favor, but a strong start to the MLS season or injuries to other forwards in the USMNT player pool could lead to Wondo's call-up in late May. One thing is certain, the Quakes captain is certain to follow his team's motto of "Never Say Die" when it comes to his efforts to make the World Cup squad.
USMNT vs. South Korea Player Ratings from around the 'Net
ESPNFC's Jeffrey Carlisle gave Wondo, as well as three others, a team-high grade of 7.
Over at Soccer America, Mike Woitalla assigned co-MVP scores of 8 to Wondo and Graham Zusi.
American Soccer Now contributor Blake Thomsen made Wondolowski top of the class.
Manning the wheel at MLSsoccer.com, Greg Seltzer said "the San Jose hitman was decent" and rated him a 7.